Relevant Octogenarians (at 92nd Street Y)
Barbara Cook, Joel Grey, Sheldon Harnick, Sherman Yellen

by Rob Lester

Used in the evening's title, certainly the chosen adjective was an appropriate one for the active creative forces in their ninth decade, Relevant Octogenarians speaking their minds. "Resilience" was the topic of the doctor, Dennis S. Charney, who made a speech about his studies with a cross-section of the population who'd survived tough times, such as serious illnesses, war and concentration camps, and moved on. But for the panel's show business survivors, it was another "R" word—apparently a dirty word to them all—which causes them to object: "Retirement." It's not even a thought for performers Barbara Cook and Joel Grey or writers Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen. "Retire?" exclaims the ever-busy Barbara. "To do what? Knit?!" Harnick, who wrote some of the theatre's most skillful lyrics, including those she sang when starring in She Loves Me, interrupted with a cute fake judgmental tone that hardly covered his previously expressed admiration. "Barbara, I've seen your knitting. Don't retire."

For the January 21, 2013 presentation at 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue, comfortably moderated in a low-key, informed manner by WNYC Public Radio's Leonard Lopate, the "older but wiser" theme prevailed. There was, however, no stuffy sense of gravitas or superiority. But the perspective was there in what was introduced as a collective "360 years of experience." They agreed that stress becomes easier to handle, that disappointments don't seem as dramatic as in their youth, and that having constants in one's life—such as family and the love of their art and an ever-present curiosity—helps enormously.

Joel Grey said this past year was perhaps his busiest, that he's branched out to directing and doing books of his photographs and woke up in the mornings wondering what each new day would bring. He's been working in theatre since he was a kid and recalled his first roles in Cleveland. Satisfying work can make one revitalized at any age, pointed out Yellen, who recalled working as bookwriter with composer Richard Rodgers on Broadway's Rex when Rodgers was getting on in years and having major health problems, and how he looked much younger and was energized once the creative preparations began: "Working kept him alive." Harnick, who was the lyricist on that 1976 musical, agreed. Trying new things doesn't scare them as much and they all look forward to challenges. But, once upon a time, when it came time for Yellen to try his hand as a lyricist himself, he had been nervous. His collaborator was Wally Harper, who was Cook's musical director and close friend for decades. They remembered when Yellen expressed his nervousness and how Harper joked that they had good backgrounds for success in theatre, "You're a Jew and I'm a homosexual. We can't miss." To this, Yellen replied, "I have to tell you, I'm not much of a Jew." And Harper countered with, "That's OK. I'm a hell of a homosexual."

Laughs punctuated the evening which also had its serious moments, talking about regrets and physical problems, having colleagues die, personal depression and living through the Great Depression, even Medicare, Social Security funding, and the government's lack of major support of the arts, an area not mentioned in the day's Presidential Inaugural Address. Other topics included starting to write their memoirs—and stopping and starting again—and how painful that could be and how it made them wonder what they had to say of originality and value. ("I'm supposed to be working on it," offered Cook, while Harnick stated simply, "I stopped. It was terrible." But Grey piped up that he feels he has "a story to tell.")

Expected questions included how they got their professional starts and first glimpse of talents, what advice they'd give to young people who want to go into show business (one succinct answer was: "Don't") and some stories mavens may well have heard before. For anyone interested in musical theatre past, present and (hooray! They all have active plans in the works) future, there was much that enticed. Grey is working on a new hush-hush project, Harnick is closer to a production of a new musical version of Moliere's The Doctor in Spite of Himself and wrote some poems for wife performer Margery Gray's book of photographs, Yellen is overhauling his show about Josephine Baker, and Cook, who has been prolifically releasing new albums, is booked for concerts a couple of years ahead and will do those memoirs. Her desk is full of piles of papers and notes and she laughs that in her pre-theatre days she earned a living as head file clerk! One of the questions taken from the audience inquired about a possible revival of The Rothschilds (Yellen/Bock & Harnick) and the answer was that one is in the works.

Yellen spoke forcefully about the ageism in societies around the world and said he's more interested in politics than ever, becoming more progressive as he aged. Grey spoke fondly of his show biz father and daughter. Cook expressed gratitude for being able to work and for her voice holding up due to genes and a good basic vocal technique, and dismissed the problems she's had with a bad back. She also tried to set the record straight about being Broadway's classic ingénue, that she'd more often played soubrette roles. "If we'd known you weren't an ingénue, we never would have hired you," joked the playful Harnick. And they all laughed.

Near the end of the evening, there was a film clip from a decade earlier featuring an announced panel member who had to cancel, as he's in the hospital—former New York Mayor Ed Koch. (Ironically and/or appropriately, the evening program of 92Y Talks was sponsored by Mt. Sinai Hospital.) There was the irrepressible Koch, now 88, singing with Senator D'Amato and Sheldon Harnick, the political shenanigans song, "Little Tin Box" from Fiorello. With others, Harnick had been on the same stage just days earlier with the same number and Gilbert & Sullivan material as host/performer in their long-running Lyrics and Lyricists program. Supposedly, Koch wanted to be billed as an "entertainer" with the others for this week's program and the audience was asked to judge his alleged singing skills. Case closed. And when the film came on, with a close-up of Harnick addressing the audience and no sound was present for a full minute, the delightful, always sharp and youthful Sheldon Harnick broke the silence saying, "Oh, yes, I remember I'd lost my voice that day." Soon the film was working and rolled along. Happily, so are the panelists.

The evening can be viewed online at 92Y Relevant Octogenarians.

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